Natural Background and the Anthropogenic Enrichment of Mercury in the Southern Florida Environment: A Review with a Discussion on Public Health

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2024 Jan 22;21(1):118. doi: 10.3390/ijerph21010118.


Mercury (Hg) is a toxic metal that is easily released into the atmosphere as a gas or a particulate. Since Hg has serious health impacts based on human exposure, it is a major concern where it accumulates. Southern Florida is a region of high Hg deposition in the United States. It has entered the southern Florida environment for over 56 MY. For the past 3000 to 8000 years, Hg has accumulated in the Everglades peatlands, where approximately 42.3 metric tons of Hg was deposited. The pre-industrial source of mercury that was deposited into the Everglades was from the atmosphere, consisting of combined Saharan dust and marine evasion. Drainage and the development of the Everglades for agriculture, and other mixed land uses have caused a 65.7% reduction in the quantity of peat, therefore releasing approximately 28 metric tons of Hg into the southern Florida environment over a period of approximately 133 years. Both natural and man-made fires have facilitated the Hg release. The current range in mercury release into the southern Florida environment lies between 994.9 and 1249 kg/yr. The largest source of Hg currently entering the Florida environment is from combined atmospheric sources, including Saharan dust, aerosols, sea spray, and ocean flux/evasion at 257.1-514.2 kg/yr. The remobilization of Hg from the Everglades peatlands and fires is approximately 215 kg/yr. Other large contributors include waste to energy incinerators (204.1 kg/yr), medical waste and crematory incinerators (159.7+ kg/yr), and cement plant stack discharge (150.6 kg/yr). Minor emissions include fuel emissions from motorized vehicles, gas emissions from landfills, asphalt plants, and possible others. No data are available on controlled fires in the Everglades in sugar farming, which is lumped with the overall peatland loss of Hg to the environment. Hg has impacted wildlife in southern Florida with recorded excess concentrations in fish, birds, and apex predators. This bioaccumulation of Hg in animals led to the adoption of regulations (total maximum loads) to reduce the impacts on wildlife and warnings were given to consumers to avoid the consumption of fish that are considered to be contaminated. The deposition of atmospheric Hg in southern Florida has not been studied sufficiently to ascertain where it has had the greatest impacts. Hg has been found to accumulate on willow tree leaves in a natural environment in one recent study. No significant studies of the potential impacts on human health have been conducted in southern Florida, which should be started based on the high rates of Hg fallout in rainfall and known recycling for organic sediments containing high concentrations of Hg.

Keywords: Everglades; Hg; atmospheric deposition; exposure; geologic units; groundwater; public health risk; soils; southern Florida.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dust
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Fishes
  • Florida
  • Humans
  • Mercury* / analysis
  • Public Health


  • Mercury
  • Dust

Grants and funding

Funding was initially provided by T.M.M. from funds associated with his Eminent Scholar in Hydrology position in the College of Engineering. No grant funding was obtained to sponsor this research.